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Five Years After the Arab Uprisings: An Interview with Asef Bayat

[Asef Bayat] [Asef Bayat]

This interview was conducted on the occasion of the publication of the Turkish editions of Asef Bayat’s Making Islam Democratic and Life as Politics (Stanford University Press, 2007 and 2013 respectively), and originally appeared in Cumhuriyet Kitap 1366 (21 April 2016): 14–15. It is a follow-up of our first public correspondence, “‘Our Revolution Is Civil’: An Interview with Asef Bayat on Revolt and Change in the Arab World,” that was published in The Hedgehog Review five years ago.

Özgür Gökmen (ÖG): In Life as Politics you refer to the dangers of foreign intervention more than once. Expectations were not high but there was still some hope for the region in 2011. Today Libya and Yemen are failed states, and the worst has happened in Syria. Five years ago, people asking for change were chanting “silmiyah mou silahiya” (peaceful, not armed). Then a proxy war started. What happened?

Asef Bayat (AB): If we look carefully to all of these experiences, all of the protests, including those in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, they were at first remarkably peaceful and civil. In both Syria and Libya, the regimes’ reaction was brutal and extraordinary. The protests suffered a lot of casualties, but they were still non-violent until the foreign forces got involved: NATO and Qatar in Libya and a host of countries ranging from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Unites States to Iran, Hezbullah, al-Qaeda and then Russia. Their involvement militarized the bulk of the uprisings, turning these countries into a theatrical stage for settling geopolitical accounts. It is remarkable that despite the brutality and violence by the regime and the armed opposition, the ordinary Syrians have shown that they still wish to protest peacefully when opportunities arise as we have seen in recent episodes.

ÖG: How did the January 25 Revolution in Egypt end up in a praetorian autocracy?

AB: This is certainly a sad story of counter-revolutionary restoration. We should bear in mind that every revolution carries within itself the germ of counter-revolution waiting for an opportunity to strike. But the counter-revolution’s victory depends on whether the revolution has enough defence mechanisms to neutralise the sabotage. In the case of the Arab revolutions, counter-revolutionary forces acted both internally and at the regional level. The Arab Spring no doubt shook the edifice of the Arab autocracies, kings and sheikhs, who became adamant that these revolutions should not succeed. The key counter-revolutionary force, Saudi Arabia, and others were involved in acts of sabotage instigating sectarian conflicts.

But the revolution in Egypt suffered also from its own limitations in that it failed to transform the old power structure; so that the revolution remained exposed and vulnerable to the counter-revolutionary forces which had nested in such unaltered institutions as the military, intelligence services, judiciary, etc. At the same time, because the government under former president Mohammed Morsi ruled miserably, failed to act inclusively (in the way that Ennahda in Tunisia did), and created a lot of disenchantment and dissent, the military used the opportunity to move in, to impose its own rule. The danger could be seen much earlier—in fact I had made this observation just three weeks after the fall of Mubarak in my piece, “Paradoxes of the Arab Refo-lutions,” even though I had tried to be optimistic as well. But it seems that the “pessimism of the intellect” should have been emphasized more rigorously.

ÖG: Are the prospects better in Tunisia?

AB: Yes, in many ways the prospect in Tunisia looks better. In Tunisia, the army has been far less aggressive than that in Egypt. Ennahda has been much more inclusive, tolerant, and wise in its perspective than the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; and in Tunisia, there has been a powerful labour movement organization, UGTT, which mediated between Ennahda and the secular liberal forces. The Tunisian Constitution is a remarkable achievement. But the political class (both secular and Islamic) has basically bought into the neoliberal economy and social justice has remained, as in Egypt, a key unfulfilled claim of the revolution. Inequality, unemployment, exclusion largely remain and they are likely to come and hunt the post-revolution governments.

ÖG: Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s Ennahda was one of the sources of inspiration for the radical line of Islamism in Turkey, including the wing within the National Outlook (Milli Görüş) Movement. Then, during the 2000s, Turkish Islamists boasted about the fact that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had reached the level of becoming a source of inspiration for Ghannouchi and his followers. How do you interpret this correlation? 

AB: It may make sense. The National Outlook saw Ghannouchi as a source of inspiration because of his period of exile in London, acting as the spokesperson for Islam in Europe, while opposing the regime of former Tunisian president Zeinedine Ben Ali, which resonated so much with the intolerant secularism of the Turkish Kemalists. And yes, in truth the AKP, which by then had become a successful government, became a model for many Islamic movements and Muslim figures including possibly Ghannouchi himself. But given that Turkey has recently experienced a decline, not only economically but also in terms of democratic practices and respect for human rights, it would be interesting to learn what Ghannouchi thinks about the AKP and especially Erdoğan at present, since he still considers the AKP a source of inspiration.

ÖG: According to a recent fatwa by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, making and listening to music that incites sexual desire is sin. Does that sound familiar in terms of what you call the “politics of fun”? 

AB: Well yes, but it is somewhat complicated. One needs to know the empirical circumstances in which such rulings are issued. For instance, why this fatwa now? Is it purely doctrinal? In general, such rulings are justified almost always on doctrinal/moral/puritanical grounds. But then the question is why we have such puritanism in the first place. My thinking on this matters for some time has brought me to the conclusion that this and similar injunctions have roots in the exercise of power. In this case then, yes, it is related to the “politics of fun.”

ÖG: Lately, supporters of the political power in Turkey frequently refer to the Koranic verse, “Merciful among themselves, severe against disbelievers” (Al-Fath 48: 29). What does that tell you regarding their vision of democracy?

AB: I am not sure of the context in which such a Koranic verse is deployed, but if it refers to the political opponents of the ruling party, then it clearly indicates a politics of exclusion, a kind of “political tribalism” where kindness and tolerance are encouraged “within ourselves,” and not for the “outsiders.” This certainly works against the idea of citizenship, the idea of equality in rights and responsibilities, and is therefore anti-democratic.


[Shot by the author on February 2012 in Beyoğlu, İstanbul. The graffiti sign reads
'Tahrir Square' and points to Taksim Square, a harbinger of the Gezi Uprising]

ÖG: Making Islam Democratic analyses Iranian and Egyptian Islamisms in a comparative manner from the 1960s to the middle of the 2000s. What was the essential difference between those two cases? 

AB: The major difference lay in the fact that Egypt began to develop a fairly powerful Islamist movement since the presidency of Anwar Sadat who paid lip service to the rising “Islamic Associations” in the universities as a way to undermine the Nasserist nationalists and communists as he was drawing close to the West. These Islamic Associations grew and in the process got radicalized by the 1980s during Mubarak’s rule, turning into the insurgent al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad. Together with the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, who had maintained their non-violent strategy, and other emerging groups, Egypt experienced a strong “Islamic mode” during the 1990s and early 2000s. Egypt’s Islamism developed basically outside and even in opposition to al-Azhar or the institution of the ulema.

The Iranian experience was different. In fact, there was hardly any powerful Islamist movement in Iran just prior to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Key opposition groups were the leftist guerrilla organizations, weak Mosaddeqist groups, and then a broad sentiment around the thought of the Islamic leftist Ali Shariati. At the time Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile, but did have followers among the low-ranking ulema in the Qum seminary. During the revolution these ulema managed to use their networks in the mosques and ad-hoc religious institutions to connect the ordinary opposition to Ayatollah Khomeni. So, in Iran the Islamization unfolded largely after the revolution, when the ulema and Islamists assumed governing power. 

ÖG: What caused the emergence of a post-Islamist trajectory in Iran? Why did the reform government of 1997–2004 and then the Green Movement of 2009 not succeed?

AB: The emergence of post-Islamism in Iran had much to do with the very fact that the new regime led by the Islamists enforced “Islamization” from above, causing much dissent on the part of those who had different expectations from the revolution. The establishment of the Islamist state was accompanied by the increasing violation of democratic rights, individual liberties, and gender demands, and by the monopolization of power. This caused opposition on the part of many women, youths, intellectuals, nonconformists, and the leftist opposition.

The religious sector, the ulema and their institutions, basically lost their traditional independence. The traditional ulema and grand Ayatollahs opposed the idea of an Islamist state in the form of velayat-e faqih. The war with Iraq, crumbling economy, repression, and deteriorating urban life all contributed to making certain Islamist actors question their own convictions about “Islamist rule.” “Is this what the Islamic revolution was supposed to bring about?” they wondered. So these people began to imagine a different Islamic polity, one that was more tolerant, minimalist, and more inclusive. Indeed, the new perspective assumed a political force in the form of “reformism” during the 1997 elections that brought Mohammed Khatami to power.

In the course of 1997-2004, a great deal of openness developed—a fairly free press, social movements, women’s groups, political parties, more vibrant international relations. All this posed a real threat to the hardliner Islamists who were losing legitimacy to those who came from within the system. So later when the post-Islamist polity came back via the Green Movement, the hardliner Islamists backed by the military were determined to prevent this. The reform government lost the elections in 2004, because first, many of their policies were neutralized by the hardliners, and secondly, because it did not do enough to mobilise the lower classes—the poor and working people, who seemed committed to the former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his populist promises.

ÖG: Is post-Islamism back on track in Iran after the nuclear agreement in July 2015 and the recent elections for the Assembly of Experts and Majlis in February? The prominent reformist professor of political science Sadegh Zibakalam said that the “reformists had to choose between bad and worse” in the elections. What does the coalition between three different political inclinations, namely between Hassan Rouhani, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami tell us?

AB: I assume that by the “return of post-Islamism” you mean a post-Islamist government, otherwise the society has largely been post-Islamist for some time. The Rouhani government is on the more conservative side of the reformist trend, even though his term has opened up some space for the reformist current in the public sphere. The current political reality has compelled some reformists to minimise their expectations while people like Ayatollah Rafsanjani have moved towards the reformists. So, there is a broad coalition, which during the recent elections acted remarkably well to outmanoeuvre the exclusionary policies of the hardliner Islamists, such as the Guardian Council, and so succeeded to form a broad opposition in the next Parliament.

ÖG: “Change in Iran” was on the cover of Time (Vol. 186, No. 20) in November 2015. Although it is noted that the theocracy manages to generate new believers, hardliners are talking about the “mellowing of the revolution.” Children are said not to like Sara, the Barbie-like doll promoted by the System, for “her hijab gets in the way of playing with her hair.” How much longer can the Iranian society be restrained by an official discourse of Westoxification?

AB: Certainly hardliners have their constituencies. But they are really in minority. The free elections and large turnouts usually show this. The official discourse on Westoxification, including on lax hijab, is the raison d’etre of the hardliners and is likely to continue. But how much it has worked remains questionable. I have seen time and again how the police chiefs admit that that they have failed to make women observe hijab. I think the hardliners have lost the “culture war,” even though there is indeed a conservative segment of the population which is still quite vocal. What we have is growing fragmentation and polarization in the social and cultural domain.

ÖG: What does all this mean for the ordinary people, especially the youth? Youth unemployment is said to be around 25 percent in Iran—one of the youngest nations on earth.

AB: Currently the key concern of the ordinary people is economic matters—housing, high prices, and mostly jobs. It is expected that after the nuclear deal with the West things might improve a bit. But this will not happen smoothly. Already Iran has experienced quite unprecedented inequality in its post-revolution history. This is likely to continue because all these governments, from Islamists to post-Islamists, have more or less taken neoliberal economy for granted. The youth and the “cultural constituencies” in general have additional demands. The youth not only want a secure future—that is reasonable jobs, a place to live, get married, and form a family in the future—they also want to reclaim their “youthfulness,” a desire to live the life of youth, to pursue their interests, their individuality, free from the watchful eyes of their elders, from moral and political authority. This dimension of young people’s lives adds to the existing social tensions in Iran.

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